Friday, June 22, 2012

Film Friday: Phone Booth (2002)

If I told you that a movie takes place entirely within a phone booth, you’d probably wonder how interesting that could be. Well, with only minor exceptions, the movie Phone Booth takes place entirely within a phone booth and the street surrounding the booth. And as unlikely as it sounds, this movie is gripping! It’s also a rather conservative film.

** spoiler alert **

Phone Booth is the story of uber-jerk Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a small time New York City publicist. He lies to his clients, tricks newspapers into publishing stories about his clients, flirts with having an affair and generally mistreats everyone in his life. Every day at the same time, he uses a phone booth to place a call to the woman he’s flirting with, so his wife doesn’t see a cell phone record. On this particular day, Stu receives a call when he steps into the booth. The call is from an unknown man (Kiefer Sutherland) who argues with Stu and seems to know everything about him. As Stu is about to hang up, the caller tells Stu that he has a rifle pointed at the phone booth and that if Stu leaves the booth, he will be killed. Stu must then deal with a series of challenges including the police.
Phone Booth is a fascinating film precisely because of the difficulty in getting a film like this to work. You have limited visuals you can offer the audience because the film is confined to a very small set. You need the perfect actors because they have to carry the plot with little help from modern storytelling techniques. There is no CGI, no high speed chases, and only one man is in danger. Not to mention, you need to come up with a reason why this film stays confined to the phone booth and why the conflict you will use to keep the audience hooked must play out there.

In fact, the idea of a film taking place entirely within a phone booth was originally pitched by writer Larry Cohen to Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960s. Hitchcock liked the idea, but he and Cohen couldn’t come up with a reason why the story would stay confined to the phone booth. Thirty years later, Cohen came up with the right idea: a sniper. What Cohen did was invent a character, the caller, who wanted to toy with Stu. Making him a sniper justified keeping the story in the phone booth. As an interesting aside, this film ultimately had its release date pushed back because of the DC Sniper.

But more importantly than coming up with the sniper, Cohen brilliantly gave the character a truly twisted motivation. Specifically, the caller sees himself as the good guy, and he thinks his calling (pun intended) is to get Stu to admit the lies he’s been telling himself and others, which the caller thinks will make Stu a better man.

This is a fascinating motive if you think about it. On the one hand, the caller is right. He wants Stu to be a better man, and if Stu stops lying he would be. This in turn would make everyone happier and better off in Stu’s world. Thus, in many ways, this is an admirable goal, and you could easily see this being an uplifting movie about a priest or therapist or friend who struggles to teach this to Stu. BUT, the way the caller chooses to go about this goal ultimately makes him a sadistic and evil villain. This makes the character very interesting.
At the same time, this desire to cure Stu gives Farrell a lot to work with. Farrell is forced to admit to his wife that he is flirting with another woman. He’s forced to admit that he’s been misleading his intern. And ultimately, he’s forced to admit that his self-image isn’t what he projects. And in the process, Stu grows tremendously as a character, with a truly cathartic moment coming when he finally decides to free himself of the caller’s trap. This is great writing. But even more so, this is great acting. I’m not sure another actor could have pulled this off. Farrell plays Stu so odiously at first, but somehow keeps you from hating him. I attribute this entirely to the likeability Farrell projects onto the screen. He then makes every moment believable as Stu struggles with staying in the phone booth as the outside world (including Police Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker)) tries to get him out. And finally, he is absolutely convincing as someone who has an epiphany in the midst of what appears to be a breakdown. Farrell proves beyond any doubt that he is a top actor in this film and he makes this film work.
There’s also an interesting political undercurrent here, though the film is in no way political. This is one of those films which I would describe as premised on conservative values even as it does not espouse conservatism. For example, the things Stu has done “wrong” align strongly with traditional moral beliefs. Lying is wrong (something liberals excuse if the motive is a good one). Infidelity is wrong, but even more so, flirting with infidelity is wrong. This goes against the liberal ideas of no-fault relationships, that men naturally stray, and that we should not judge people’s behavior. When Stuart breaks down, we are then introduced to the idea of shame, another traditional belief liberals now reject. We are shown through the sniper that just because you have good motives doesn’t excuse your bad deeds. This flies in the face of much of liberalism which says force is justified to make people better. Finally, we are shown the idea of self-help. Indeed, Stu does not rely on the cops to save him, he helps him self and finds the only true solution. This again goes against the liberal idea that the individual is powerless to help themselves and must rely on government experts to save them. I’m not saying these points are intentional made as a political statement, but they are how the story operates and the unconscious message it sends.

In the end, this is a fascinating, gripping film. This film shows that all the things Hollywood thinks you need, e.g. CGI, chase scenes, shootouts at touristy locations, etc., aren’t necessary. All it really takes is solid writing. I highly recommend this film.

55 comments:

ScottDS said...

I haven't seen this film and considering it's several years old, I have no excuse! I remember the trailers and the poster and the TV spots but I just never got around to it!

Having said that, this is why I never refer to Joel Schumacher as a bad director. He's certainly not the best director in the world and he has already apologized for Batman and Robin but a cursory glance at his filmography reveals a good handful of well-made films that we still remember today. (Can't go wrong with The Lost Boys.)

While I understand why Farrell would use a public phone, phone booths are definitely an endangered species, if not outright extinct! The window in which this movie could've been made is narrowing by the day!

tryanmax said...

I never knew about the Hitchcock history before. I remember seeing this and thinking, "This is like something from Hitchcock." Now I know, it almost was.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's actually how the film starts. There is a rather hip voiceover giving you statistics about the number of people in NYC and how many use cell phones and how the phone booth is a dying breed. It finishes with something like, "The phone booth on __ is scheduled to be replaced with a kiosk on June X, in two days. Its last occupant is this man, Stu Shepard." Then the film starts.

And then you meet Stu in quite an intro. This guy is an ASS, LOL! You really should check this out, you won't be disappointed.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I didn't know about the connection until recently either. This film very much struck me as a stage play brought to film, and in that regard it's very much like a Hitchcock film.

DUQ said...

Andrew, Excellent review! This is indeed a cool movie and you're right about the conservative foundation. I never realized that before. Maybe that's why this film works so well?

DUQ said...

Also, Farrell is a great actor (though he's apparently a lousy human being). He has never let me down, even though I haven't always enjoyed his films.

Tennessee Jed said...

As you know, I'm a huge fan of Farrell, and loved this film. In a way, this was one of the first of his to really showcase his talent. I also think it is interesting how history can help make things possible that may not have been previously. Now snipers have been around since the civil war, but I think the notion of the modern day civilian sniper (with modern weaponry) made it a lot more plausible. In the end, it always comes down to the story and a good actor who can "sell" that story in a convincing manner.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks DUQ! I think this is one of those films we talk about where it presents conservative values even without preaching them (and even if that wasn't the intent). If most Hollywood films did this, then I think few people would have problems with Hollywood.

I agree about Farrell. He may be the best actor of the current generation in my opinion.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I do know that you are a huge fan of Farrell. I am too, and this was the film that won me over. He completely carried this film and he did an incredible job of connecting you to the character.

I do think this film is packed with great writing too. The writer does an excellent job of escalating the tension, of feeding you little bits of information throughout and false hopes, just enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. And the dialog is stupendous. I'm very impressed and I wish this film got greater recognition.

I agree with you too about the change in technology. And you are right that the idea of a sniper just wouldn't have worked even twenty years ago. It would have seemed ludicrously fake. I think the use of the phones is special here too. Scott often talks about how new technology ruins plots by making certain things no longer work, but this film embraces that and uses both new technology and old to give a heck of a plot.

DUQ said...

Andrew, That's a good point. It is kind of cool how they start in a cell phone world, but then one of the last pay phones in NYC becomes the focus of the story, and it happens seamlessly.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, It is seamless and that's pretty cool. This is an all around excellent film.

T-Rav said...

I only saw this movie on HBO a few months back, and I thought it was pretty good. Kiefer Sutherland (I had his voice pegged about ten minutes in without seeing the credits) was extremely creepy as the sniper; he added in just enough black humor to avoid being completely monstrous.

To go against the grain a bit, I thought the scene where the pimp attacking Stu gets shot was especially effective. I could imagine myself in that situation: Guy's trying to beat me down, I'm afraid for my life, Evil Jack Bauer's asking me if I want him to take the pimp out, and I don't want him killed--well, maybe a tiny part of me does, which makes it even worse--but I do want the beating to stop. Kind of a scary moment, internally as well as externally.

Doc Whoa said...

I was surprised how great this film was. Everything about it was great. Nice review! Good point about the conservatism too.

CrispyRice said...

I've never heard of this, but I'll check it out!

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, When I first saw it, I almost didn't watch it because it sounds like a stupid idea -- a film about a guy in a phone booth. I'm really glad I did watch it though.

I agree 100% -- Sutherland is extremely creepy. He's the perfect choice for this and his use of black humor really does make the role stronger. I especially like the Vietnam bit. "Wake up Stu, I'd have to be sixty to have been in that war!"

I think the pimp thing was a great moment. Farrell does an excellent job of showing you how stressful that moment is and you realize you don't know how you would react. And then the guy is so totally shocked.

They also do something smart by having Stu right away say, "the cops won't blame me because they'd do ballistics on the bullet" and then Sutherland has an answer. That was a brilliant bit of answering the audience's questions and solving their doubts before they take hold.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, It hasn't gotten the publicity it should have. I definitely recommend it.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, Thanks! I think it's interesting when you a film which just simply internalized conservatism. And I agree, this was a surprisingly good film.

Doc Whoa said...

Andrew, It is interesting because so much of Hollywood is so liberal. So it's fascinating when you see they premising a film on conservative ideas.

Doc Whoa said...

I agree too that this film never got the publicity it deserves. I'll bet it proves its worth by withstanding the test of time.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, It is interesting because Hollywood has moved so far left that we don't think of them even admitting conservative value still exist. Yet, here they are basing the whole film on conservative value after conservative value.

Ed said...

I enjoyed this a lot. I too recommend it. I think Sutherland did a great job and he and Farrell had tremendous chemisty. I wasn't as thrilled with Whitaker because he kind oafs his way through it. But it was definitely gripping.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Sutherland was great. He really got a ton of personality into the role even though you never really see him.

I didn't mind Whitaker at all. I thought he fit the role of a quasi-bumbler, low-confidence guy who decides to make sure this doesn't end poorly.

Ed said...

Andrew, That's a good way to put it. He's not an oaf so much as a guy with little confidence. But he's also got an ego because he stands up to the hostage negotiator. In many ways, he's like a bureaucrat.

Either way, we agree on Sutherland and Farrell. I can't see anyone else doing as well in those roles.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Indeed we do agree.

And yeah, he does has a strong ego at various points. I'm not sure if he just doesn't trust the other cop or if it's personal. I think it's probably personal.

K said...

Looks like a great movie from a writer's POV. Interestingly answers the question of how do you tell a gripping story without going anywhere. How do you keep the viewer's interest and move the story along?

For me, though, the sniper thing is too transparently a solution to a story problem rather than an interesting "real world" set up.

I watched "Rope" the other day and enjoyed it greatly. At no point did I think "well they had to do anything because the story required it rather than something within the will suspension of belief of the viewer.

AndrewPrice said...

K, I love Rope. That is one of the darkest films I've ever seen and it's so beautifully written that I just love every line.

Phone Booth must have been a fascinating challenge and the writer overcomes it very nicely. He slowly keeps adding more and more conflicts to the film as it goes on. For example, Stu ends up on the news, so his wife and girlfriend both show up. Suddenly, he's caught in the middle and trying to dance his way through while not getting killed. It's things like that which keep getting added as the story goes on and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. The director is great at teasing you too. He plays things (like how long Stu will let the phone ring) right at the edge.

As for the sniper seeming transparent, it really doesn't feel that way. Sutherland comes across as entirely believable. He sees himself as a guy who has been called upon to fix people like Stu. He has just chosen a sadistic way of doing it.

Also, interestingly, this film was released after the DC sniper, which made the whole idea seem even more "real world." And the writer does an excellent job of teasing you with information so you learn little by little how he's able to do the things he does.

I definitely recommend this.

Ed said...

Andrew, That's true. There are moments where you feel the tension just because Stu is letting the phone ring rather than answer it or when he tries to step away from the phone and you don't know how far he will get. This film does produce a lot of tension.

Ed said...

K and Andrew, "Rope" is awesome. That's one of my favorite Hitchcock films and my favorite Jimmy Stewart film.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Rope is one of my favorites too.

I agree, there are some great moments of tension created as the phone rings and rings and you aren't sure who's going to break first. It's very well directed.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: All this time I thought the movie starred Colin Powell. No wonder I interpreted it wrong!

Seriously, I agree with your assessment entirely. All the characters were pitch-perfect, including the pimps and the ho's. However much a suspension of disbelief was required, it didn't matter. Right from the beginning the movie was engrossing. I've seen it a couple of times, and even knowing the ending I still enjoyed it.

T-Rav said...

Phone Booth starring Colin Powell. That would be an interesting movie to watch. Also if it starred Colin Firth.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Colin Powell! LOL!

I feel the same way about the film. Everything was pitch perfect and it's an engrossing film right from the beginning, even if you know the ending. That's a pretty solid achievement since that should kill the suspense, but it really doesn't.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Oh boy, keep this up and we'll end up with a cast of Colins! LOL!

ellenB said...

Andrew, You notice the most interesting things in films. Excellent review. I saw this one night with no expectations and I was amazed how intense it was. Like Jed, this film really made me notice Farrell, though I had already liked him from the war film with Bruce Willis.

T-Rav said...

Unfortunately, I don't think I know any other Colins. Except one a friend of mine used to date, but he's not an actor, so.

Speaking of Farrell, I really thought he was trying to turn his life around or something. I don't know, maybe I just heard that.

AndrewPrice said...

I'm out of Colins as well. LOL!

I haven't kept up with his personal life lately, I just know that he was out of control at one point and was getting into trouble left and right. What a way that would be to ruin a truly inspired career.

EricP said...

Really should have stood my ground more with this movie when making my "Defense of Schumacher" list.

http://www.threedonia.com/archives/46907

AndrewPrice said...

Eric, He does have a mixed track record, but there are some great films on that list. I would definitely move Phone Booth up a couple notches. It clearly didn't get the recognition to call it a classic, but it's very good in my opinion!

Here's your link: Eric Defends Schumacher

AndrewPrice said...

Ellen, I seem to have skipped your comment somehow. Sorry.

Thanks! This was the film that got me interested in Colin Farrell as well. I think the war film you mean was Hart's War.

ellenB said...

Andrew, That's the one.

Kit said...

Saw PHONE BOOTH, thought it was a good suspense thriller. Great performances from both Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland.

But Schumacher still deserves a harsh beating for BATMAN & ROBIN. His handling of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was botched, though the performers did well.

The Phantom was just not ugly enough. They didn't have to go Lon Chaney with the make-up but some ugliness other than a small bit of scarring. It made him come across as vain.

The actor was good, though I think Michael Crawford's high-pitched voice was far, far better and creepier. The Phantom is not just some loner Anne Rice character, he is far more creepier than that.

Here is Crawford singing "Music of the Night": LINK
Here is Gerald "This is Sparta!" Butler singing "Music of the Night" LINK

Crawford is better. By the way, Michael Crawford is the same guy who was in this scene who starts telling Barnaby to "put on your sunday clothes", saying "it only takes a moment" in the same movie, and plays this smitten young fellow in Ancient Rome.

Impressive.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I can't disagree about the intense beating he deserves. For me, Phantom was not memorable, but Batman and Robin was so bad I turned it off.

Kit said...

On BATMAN & ROBIN.

Here is Mr. Freeze in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Heart of Ice" (skip the first 10 seconds): LINK

Here is Mr. Freeze in Schumacher's BATMAN & ROBIN: LINK

The only good thing to come from that handling of Mr. Freeze is that the video game ARKHAM CITY used the armor from the movie.

Kit said...

That, and a BAT CREDIT CARD!!!!!!!!

Kit said...

Some language at link.

AndrewPrice said...

Oh my God! I missed that somehow. He whips out a Bat-Credit Card. Wow, that's low.

Kit said...

Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman's* murder of Batman was so complete only the genius of Christopher Nolan could resurrect him.

Akiva Goldsman is another "mixed record" guy having written THE CLIENT, TIME TO KILL, LOST IN SPACE, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, and BATMAN FOREVER.

You pick out the good from the bad (never seen THE CLIENT, just saw it in his filmography at wikipedia)

AndrewPrice said...

That's true. Nolan rescued Batman from oblivion for at least a generation.

Of the Goldsman movies you mention, the only one I thought was good was A Beautiful Mind. The rest were weak.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review, Andrew!

I felt the same way you did when I saw the title.
The only reason I gave it a chance is because of Keifer Sutherland and Colin Farrel.
Both are excellent actors (Keifer far eclipses his father, as an actor. Then again, I never considered Donald Sutherland to be a great actor. Not horrible but highly overrated IMO.) and perfect casting choices for this film.

This film shows what can be done with good writing and good acting and how engrossing it can be without CGI, Slowmo neoNeo cam, or a big budget.

I love films like this because (if good actors are in it) you get an opportunity to see the chops of the actors and how just how good they are.

It is like a play in that regard. The way it's written and directed allows the actors to shine, and shine they do, particulary Colin and Keifer.

I would really like to see these two in more films together. Doesn't hafta be a sequel either, although I sure would watch it.

BTW, Keifer is one of the most interesting villains I have seen in modern films (or not seen, as the case might be). Definitely memorable.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, Sutherland is indeed a memorable villain here. He's compelling. He's funny, he's got a strong voice, and he's intensely creepy.

I agree about Donald S. I like him, but don't see him as a great actor. Keifer, however, is really top notch!

I agree, I love films like this because it's all about the actors pulling you in. That makes the film so much more satisfying on an emotional level.

I agree too that they need to start getting great actors together more often. Too often, when they do bring people together, they just try to bring famous people together rather than great actors.

CrispyRice said...

Just back to add that we're watching this right now... and sorry, Andrew, but it stinks! If Mr. Crispy weren't interested, I'd turn it off. Alas, I'm stuck.

I think part of the problem is that I OD'd on Kiefer and his breathlessness that substituted for intensity on "24." He became a laughable caricature to me, and I just can't take this seriously.

I just... can't .... care... Can we just shoot him and be done with it? ARGH!!!

CrispyRice said...

Thank goodness... Mr. Crispy has had enough. I can stop banging my head against the coffee table now.

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry to hear things didn't go well for you Crispy. Fortunately, you did sign the waiver! ;)

Also, when Kiefer did this, 24 was just starting, so he hadn't exhausted anyone yet.

CrispyRice said...

Well, ok, maybe there is a tad bit of redemption for Kiefer then, LOL.

AndrewPrice said...

True! :) Sorry you didn't like it.

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